Midday naps can refuel your brain

SET ASIDE YOUR notion of siestas—those long midday naps—as the lazy person’s excuse to slumber. Numerous recent studies show that shut-eye lasting up to 90 minutes not only helps build and boost brain power, it also might prevent serious disease.

Contrary to the notion that naps are needed only if you haven’t slept well the night before, a 90-minute nap—even for those who’ve had a good night’s sleep—clears the brain’s short-term memory storage, which becomes cluttered and sluggish after being awake for several hours, and makes room for new information, according to new research from the University of California, Berkeley. Previous UC Berkeley sleep research found naps of 60 to 90 minutes that include rapid eye movement, or REM, sleep help increase receptiveness to positive emotions, beneficial for mental health. Taking regular midday naps also reduced the risk of death from heart disease in men, according to a joint study by Harvard University and the University of Athens in Greece.

“The cardinal rule of sleep is that you have to get enough of it,” says Dr. John Wilson. Lunchtime naps make sense not only for sleep-deprived individuals, he says, but for anyone who wants to function at optimal mental capacity. “Most people think of sleep as something that is passive, like recharging your battery. But it isn’t. It’s actually much more active than that,” says Wilson. “Your brainwaves have more structure when you are asleep than when you are awake. It’s kind of like defragmenting your hard drive, only it’s much more important.”

Siestas can be a beneficial addition to anyone’s sleep repertoire, says Dr. Sara Mednick, sleep researcher and assistant professor of psychiatry at UC San Diego. She breaks down siestas into two sleep categories. Naps lasting 30 to 60 minutes trigger slowwave sleep that helps brains recall information already stored there. To avoid sleep inertia, try to nap at least 50 minutes, says Mednick: “It’s good to sleep beyond the slow-wave sleep, so you get past it and can wake up more easily.”

Naps of 60 to 90 minutes trigger REM sleep—good for improving and creating memory. But don’t sleep past 90 minutes. You’re just going to go into another sleep cycle and you aren’t getting any additional benefits. Additionally, too long a nap can affect your nighttime sleep.

For a perfect and beneficial siesta: Grab a blanket. Your body temperature drops when you sleep.

Block distractions. Turn off electronic devices and wear an eye mask. There’s some evidence that light may inhibit sleep.

Watch the clock. Don’t nap within three hours of your bedtime; otherwise, you’ll rob yourself of nighttime sleep.

Despite the benefits, many people might not be culturally ready to embrace siestas, says Wilson. “When it’s possible to take a siesta, it certainly would be a good thing for overall physical and mental health—unless it gets you fired,” he says. “That’s not going to do you any good for your physical or mental health.” So before you take a siesta at work, check with your employer.

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